Political Science

1. Bolivia became a semi-stable democracy in the early 1980s and it has stayed that way.

2. For all the rhetoric to the contrary, the current regime is a mix of 1990s-era market-oriented reforms and Evo Morales.  Probably you like one of these, though perhaps not both.

3. Many more Bolivian children go to school than before, and the incidence of malnutrition has been plummeting, with longer-run benefits for IQ.  You will read many fabricated or non-causally-backed claims about the connection between inequality and growth, but for Bolivia I believe these arguments.

4. Bolivia has done so many things wrong in the past, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit through purely internal improvements.  For instance the country is a fantastic tourist destination, but would not at this moment be experienced that way by mainstream American tourists, due to language, hotel, and infrastructure shortcomings.  Eventually those problems can be and will be solved.  Eventually.

5. Bolivia does not have much export exposure to China, and does not face much geopolitical risk.

6. Of all commodities, hydrocarbons may be relatively protected in price through the forthcoming global turmoil, because the Middle East implosion will make Bolivia’s current main resource more valuable.

7. Bolivia’s fiscal situation is surprisingly sound.

The three main reasons to be pessimistic about Bolivia are:

1. Most of their economic policy is quite bad, especially when it concerns the nationalization of foreign direct investment.  The FDI future of Bolivia will be extremely unfavorable.  The rhetoric and indeed the behavior of the government sometimes is like a villain from an Ayn Rand novel.

2. Their main trading partner is Brazil, a country which will have gone from eight percent growth to near-zero growth in but a few years time.  Argentina is either the number two or number three trade partner, along with the U.S., depending on the year in question.

3. Bolivia hasn’t done that well in the past.

Of those three reasons, #1 probably matters a bit less than you might think, and #3 a bit more.

It is much debated in Bolivia whether corruption is going up or down.  I believe it is going up, but partially for good reasons.  For instance the construction sector is doing well, and construction tends to be corrupt in many countries, for reasons intrinsic to the activity itself (e.g., lots of big contracts, easy to claim invisible expenses, etc.).  That means higher corruption but also a better corruption than the penny ante bribes of a shrinking economy.

Right now Bolivia is growing at a rate of above six percent.

By Lilia Shevtsova, this is the best essay I have read on Russia, Ukraine, and Putin.  It is difficult to excerpt, but here is one short bit:

Having flipped the global chessboard with his annexation of the Crimea and an undeclared war against Ukraine, Putin effectively ended the most recent period of interregnum and inaugurated a new era in global politics. However, no one yet knows what this era will bring. The global community is still reeling in shock, when it isn’t trying to pretend that nothing extraordinary has in fact occurred. This denial of the fact that the Kremlin has dealt a blow to conventional ideas, stable geopolitical constructs, and (supposedly) successful policies proceeds from the natural instinct for self-preservation. It is also quite natural that the political forces that have grown accustomed to the status quo will try to look to the past for answers to new challenges—this is precisely what those who were unprepared for a challenge always do. It was easy enough to predict that many politicians and political analysts would explain what Putin has done to the global order by using Cold War analogies. Drawing these historical parallels is potentially useful in only one respect: if they help us to see what is truly new about the current situation, and the scale of the risks involved.

Read the whole thing.

It seems to be economic policy orientation toward Europe or Russia, and not either language or ethnicity.  Here is a new paper by Timothy Frye:

Language, ethnicity, and policy orientation toward Europe are key cleavages in Ukrainian politics, but there is much debate about their relative importance. To isolate the impact of candidate ethnicity, candidate native language, and candidate policy orientation on a hypothetical vote choice, I conducted a survey experiment of 1000 residents of Ukraine in June 2014 that manipulated three features of a fictional candidate running for parliament: 1) ethnicity as revealed by either a Russian or Ukrainian name 2) native language of Russian or Ukrainian and 3) support for closer economic ties with Russia or with Europe. The results reveal little difference in the average response to these 8 fictitious candidates despite the candidate’s different ethnicities, native language, and economic policy orientations. This seeming homogeneity masks vast differences in the responses of self-reported native speakers of Russian and Ukrainian. Analyzing the responses among Ukrainian and among Russian speakers yields considerable differences in the responses to the different candidates. Perhaps most striking is that among both native speakers of Russian and native speakers of Ukrainian a candidate’s economic policy orientation toward Europe or Russia appears to be a more important determinant of vote choice than a candidate’s language or ethnicity. That policy retains its importance for voters despite the intense politicization of both ethnicity and language and ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine suggests that vote choice in Ukraine has not been reduced to an ethnic or linguistic census.

Hat tip goes to www.bookforum.com.

Big Sugar

by on August 27, 2014 at 7:09 am in Economics, Food and Drink, Political Science | Permalink

From Bloomberg:

Because of a plunge in U.S. sugar prices amid a hefty crop of sugar beets and cane, the Agriculture Department estimates that it may have to buy 400,000 tons of sugar from processors who might default on $862 million in government loans. Sugar producers have the option of repaying the loans either with cash or with their harvests if prices fall below a certain level.

…The sugar, by law, would be sold to ethanol refiners, who would pay 10 cents a pound less than the government paid — an inducement needed to get the ethanol industry to use the sugar. Aside from the ridiculousness of piling one ill-advised subsidy atop another, this would produce a loss of $80 million for the U.S. Treasury. Some industry analysts estimate the government may have to buy as much as 800,000 tons of sugar to restore balance to U.S. stockpiles, potentially doubling the loss.

David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart have unearthed some very valuable, hitherto undiscovered material in the history of economic and political thought, as well as the history of American philanthropy.  I have followed this paper through several drafts, with great enthusiasm, and am pleased to report it is now on-line.  The abstract is here:

In 1960 the Thomas Jefferson Center [TJC] of the University of Virginia applied for a “massive” grant from the Ford Foundation. Although James Buchanan, Warren Nutter and Ronald Coase had all received grants from Ford, Ford turned down their proposal because of the Center’s unified “point of view.” We report on correspondence and private discussions of the events. Following the submission of their proposal, Buchanan, Nutter and then President of UVA, Edgar Shannon met with representatives of the Ford Foundation, Tom Carroll and Kermit Gordon. Buchanan concluded that the “reaction of the Ford representatives must be considered to have been almost wholly negative.” The crux of the matter, in Gordon’s assessment was the TJC reflected “a single ‘point of view’.” As the conversation unfolded, it became clear to the UVA representatives that by this the Foundation officials meant a narrow ideological perspective, one in line with Chicago-style economics. Buchanan attempted to dispel this conclusion, arguing that the program was “sufficiently broad” to “encompass wide and divergent points of view.” Coase was particularly incensed by allegation of ideological narrowness since, as he explained, he had close ties to the Fabian Society. Despite the attempts of both Coase and Buchanan to defend their proposal, Ford officials turned down the application and the TJC never fully recovered.

This is what they call “real history.”  In my version of this story, of course, the Virginia School, Coase, Buchanan, and Tullock were the good guys, as was demonstrated by their subsequent research record.

I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

When do economists matter?

by on August 21, 2014 at 2:05 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Christopher D. Johnston and Andrew Ballard have a new paper on this neglected topic, the abstract is this:

Given an increasing presence in the public sphere, what role do economic experts play in shaping public opinion on economic issues? In this paper, we examine the responsiveness of American public opinion on five economic policy issues to real information regarding the distribution of opinion on these issues among economists. We also examine the extent and role of trust in economists within the public. On average, we find meaningful changes in public opinion in the direction of expert consensus when citizens are given explicit information about expert opinion. However, we also find heterogeneity in citizen responsiveness across issues, such that aggregate opinion change is smaller on symbolic policy issues relative to technical ones. Further, on symbolic (but not technical) issues we find that citizens use judgments of the trustworthiness of economic experts in a motivated fashion, as a means of reinforcing prior opinions.

That is a little bloodless and the paper is also poorly written and organized but nonetheless it is important work.  Here is one very interesting bit:

…strongly left-leaning citizens are about 12 percentage points more trusting of economists than strongly right-leaning citizens.

This part of (sort of) encouraging:

…all three groups of respondents show greater trust than predicted after exposure to consensus information.  This pattern is consistent with the notion that exposure to highly technical, means-oriented issues makes one’s lack of knowledge salient, and perhaps engenders greater respect for experts…

The full paper is here, I would say start reading on p.16 and return to the beginning later on if you wish.

I did not know this idea was under consideration:

Los Angeles city leaders are considering a lottery system to reward citizens for casting a ballot in local elections, in a measure to combat low voter turnout that officials and outside observers say could be a first for any U.S. municipality.

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted 3-0 on Thursday to recommend that members of the City Council move forward with the lottery idea, either by putting it before voters as a local initiative or by adopting it on their own, said commission president Nathan Hochman.

The commission discussed a number of possible ways for the lottery to work, including the use of $100,000 to be split into four prizes of $25,000, or 100 pots of $1,000 for lucky voters who win the drawing, Hochman said.

The story is here, hat tip goes to long-time MR correspondent Daniel Lippman, who now is working for Politico.

File under The Polity that is California.

Josh Barro reports on Rhode Island, arguably the least polarized state in the Union:

Wonder what Washington might look like if it were less polarized? Just look to Rhode Island. The political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty analyzed state legislative voting records from 1996 to 2013 and found Rhode Island had the least ideological difference between the typical Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

It’s common for Republican officials in heavily Democratic Northeastern states to be moderates. What makes Rhode Island stand out is the number of conservatives within its Democratic legislative supermajority. The median Democrat in Rhode Island was more conservative than in all but 13 state legislatures, scoring directly between Georgia and Indiana and far to the right of those in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

This kind of ideological scrambling — one might say incoherence — has made it possible for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground and work together. But does it actually lead to desirable public policy? Nobody I spoke with in Rhode Island seemed inclined to hold up their state as a model of consultative governance for the rest of the country.

“We are unique state with a unique governing culture – and I would submit, a uniquely bad governing culture,” says Senator Hodgson. Of course, it’s not unusual for a member of a permanent minority party to criticize his state’s governance. But Rhode Island is a notably poor fiscal and economic performer, and observers across the political spectrum tend to talk about Rhode Island as a state that has fallen behind its richer neighbors.

The full story is here.

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.

And:

And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

“There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult – to begin a war and to end it.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.

China will construct a “Chinese Christian theology” suitable for the country, state media reported on Thursday, as both the number of believers and tensions with the authorities are on the rise.

China has between 23 million and 40 million Protestants, accounting for 1.7 to 2.9 per cent of the total population, the state-run China Daily said, citing figures given at a seminar in Shanghai.

About 500,000 people are baptised as Protestants every year, it added.

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.  It should be noted that this story can be given a number of different interpretations.  Here is a related article.

Putin’s Plan A: Long game, squeeze Ukraine, force deep federation, formalize Russian influence & primacy in SE

Plan B: Invade

The link to that tweet is here.  There is more from Ian here.

I find it worrying that Putin is suspending food imports from parts of the West.  (Note that the text of the ban may be deliberately ambiguous.)  Commentators are criticizing the economics of such a move, but I think of this more in terms of Bayesian inference.  Long-term elasticities are greater than short.  Under the more pessimistic reading of the action, Putin is signaling to the Russian economy that it needs to get used to some fairly serious conditions of siege, and food is of course the most important of all commodities.  Why initiate such a move now if you are expecting decades of peace and harmony?  Or is Putin instead trying to signal to the outside world that he is signaling “siege” to his own economy?  Then it may all just be part of a larger bluff.  In any case, Eastern Europeans do not take food supply for granted.

That campaign is one of the more notable events going on in a busy and event-rich world, so it feels remiss not to cover it at all.  Here is John Minnich:

The anti-corruption campaign is one of those steps. It serves many overlapping functions: to clear out potential opponents, ideological or otherwise; to consolidate executive power and reduce bureaucratic red tape so as to ease the implementation of reform; to remind the Chinese people that the Communist Party has their best interests at heart; and to make it easier to make tough decisions.

Underlying and encompassing these, we see the specter of something else. The consensus-based model of politics that Deng built in order to regularize decision-making and bolster political stability during times of high growth and that effectively guided China throughout the post-Deng era is breaking down. It can no longer hold in the face of China’s transformation and the crises this will bring. Simply put, now that its post-1978 contract with Chinese society — a social contract grounded in the exchange of growth for stability — is up, the Party risks losing the public support and political legitimacy that this contract undergirded. A new and more adaptive but potentially much less stable model is being erected, or resurrected, from within the old. This model is grounded more firmly in the personality and prestige of the president and more capable, or so Chinese leaders seem to hope, of harnessing and managing the Chinese nation through what could well be a period of turmoil.

This does not necessarily mean a return to Imperial China, nor does it mean a return to the days and methods of the Great Helmsman, Mao. It doesn’t even mean the new model will succeed, even remotely. What it means will be decided only by the specific interplay of structure and contingency in the unfolding of history. But it is this transformation that serves as the fundamental, if latent, purpose for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

The full piece is here, and for the pointer I thank Jim Olds.  “Be careful what kind of anti-corruption campaign you wish for…”